Printer Friendly

Walker Percy: Books of Revelations.

Any assessment of a writer's career is necessarily tentative during his or her life. Because each new work threatens to revise or even overturn our understanding of what that writer is up to, the figure in the carpet that the critic pursues is blurred, unstable. Though he or she can try to describe what seems to be there, the ironic truth is that the critic's work begins in earnest when the voice that inspired it is silent.

So it is in the aftermath of Walker Percy's death. Now that the contours of Percy's career have been fixed by his passing, the critical debate over the size and shape of his achievement has really only begun. And that is why each of the two new books on Percy's writings under consideration here are at once a welcome arrival and something of a disappointment. For though both books contribute to this debate, they also draw heavily from the well of established critical approaches to Percy's work. Perhaps because all or most of each book was written before Percy's death, neither attempts a dramatic reinterpretation of Percy's work or makes anything more than the gentlest attempts at evaluation. (With a few notable exceptions in Walker Percy: Novelist and Philosopher, the critical stance here is almost uniformly admiring.)

Of the two books, Walker Percy: Books of Revelations is by design more ambitious. In contrast to the inevitable eclecticism of a collection of essays, Ciuba aims at nothing less than whole sight, a comprehensive reading of Percy's entire body of fiction - including even an early unpublished manuscript, "The Grammercy Winner." (A shorter, slightly different version of Ciuba's discussion of this manuscript also appears in Walker Percy: Novelist and Philosopher.) For Ciuba, the core of Percy's work is his apocalyptic vision. He argues that "the Apocalypse of John is the story of all Percy's stories." Seizing upon the recurrent musings of Percy's characters on the imminence of a nuclear holocaust or social breakdown or even personal upheaval, Ciuba suggests that this sense of eschatology ultimately leads to "an unveiling that transforms ordinary sight into sacred insight so that the visionary sees somewhat as God does." Just as the apocalyptic tradition looks to the birth of a new age after the destruction of the old, the intimation of apocalypse for Percy's characters is not the end of things - though it marks the end of a certain period in their lives - but "the beginning of vision." They come to themselves in a world whose beauty and strangeness has been obscured by a dense film of everydayness, and they must now search for a way to live in this world. As Percy's alienated heroes struggle to accommodate this apocalyptic vision - they must resist the dual temptation to aestheticize the end of the world, to make it the backdrop for some romantic myth, and to cast themselves as the harbingers of the apocalypse, gnostic saviors who take God's work as their own - they gradually abandon the watchful insularity that once sustained and comforted them. Aided in their quest by other characters who testify to the ultimate meaning of the signs that Percy's visionaries now perceive and who bear news of the age to come, such wary observers as Binx Bolling and Will Barrett finally achieve the kind of intersubjective union that is itself a concelebration of being and an intimation of a more transcendent union.

Ultimately, Ciuba argues, this transformation of the protagonist's consciousness fulfills the apocalyptic portents he saw at the beginning of the novel. In keeping with the reinterpretation of classical apocalypse in the New Testament, the Kingdom of God in Percy's fiction is not achieved at the end of history; rather, "it breaks into history and grows in the lives of believers." This is why it is not the world at large but the individual who is swept away in Percy's apocalyptic vision. As Ciuba writes, "The last day does happen for Percy - not in the cosmos but in daily life, where deeds measure time and ages may begin or end with a single action. Despite the alarm that Percy's fiction registers about America at large, each of his novels shows how the world ends for only a few individuals, yet the entire history of the City of Man depends on such personal choices to live in the City of God."

Ciuba's boldest claim is to cast the Apocalypse of John as the urnarrative of Percy's novels. Though other studies have located the heart of Percy's work elsewhere - one thinks, for instance, of Martin Luschei's insistence on a Kierkegaardian model of interpretation in his pioneering study, The Sovereign Wayfarer, or William Rodney Allen's assertion that the legacy of a self-destructive father is "the sine qua non of all Percy's novels" - Ciuba's emphasis on Percy's apocalyptics seems closer to the moral and artistic center of Percy's writings. Indeed, as one reads Walker Percy: Books of Revelations one sees a steady line of development that begins with what Percy himself called the "cataclysm" in his own life, the personal apocalypse of his infection with tuberculosis, and continues through his final word on our troubled century, The Thanatos Syndrome, in which the malaise and alienation of his earlier works become "an apocalyptic plague." Ciuba's study both identifies and traces this line of development, detailing an inevitable progression from the sky that "glistens like a vat of sulphur" over Binx Bolling's world to the storm cloud that towers above the golf course in The Second Coming, "boiling up higher and higher like the cloud over Hiroshima." For Ciuba, even the moralizing and satirical heavy-handedness that Harold Bloom and others have condemned in Percy's later fiction is only evidence of the increasing urgency of his apocalyptic tidings. Ciuba argues that "the apocalyptic writer believes that truth can only be revealed by extreme methods that avoid the worn-out words of everyday sight for the bolder language of the visionary imagination." Thus, the violent action and vehement tone of Percy's tinal novels show his assimilation of Flannery O'Connor's approach: "those who are nearly blind require large and startling figures."

Unfortunately, however, the significance of Ciuba's thesis is diminished by its application. Except of course for his discussion of "The Grammercy Winner," his readings of the individual novels are for the most part familiar. Having excavated the narrative pattern that recurs in each - "a common story about revelation, ruin, and renewal" - Ciuba offers yet again a series of readings that trace the journey of Percy's protagonists from the depths of their self-absorption to the threshold of religious faith. For the most part, his analyses are not radically different from those of other critics who privilege a religious interpretation of Percy's work. The reader who is already familiar with the work of Lewis A. Lawson, Martin Luschei, and other Percy scholars might find Walker Percy: Books of Revelations much less engaging after Ciuba's lucid overview of his thesis and his fascinating discussion of "The Grammercy Winner" (a work that is thoroughly consistent with Percy's other novels and with Ciuba's apocalyptic scheme; if nothing else, "The Grammercy Winner" shows us the almost obsessive nature with which Percy explored certain themes and images, introducing elements of his fiction that would later reappear throughout his published work).

Still, Ciuba's study bears reading. Its exploration of Percy's apocalyptics is richly detailed, and Ciuba is a sensitive, astute critic attuned to the nuances and the texture of a work. Even a reader who can anticipate the course of Ciuba's argument will appreciate the many clear-eyed observations that mark the way. Ciuba deftly captures, for instance, the "quietly musing tone" of The Moviegoer - "Binx's cautious use of words bespeaks a verbal Little Way," he says, "but it also hints at the utter enormity of what cannot be said" - just as he identifies the echoing void that mars Love in the Ruins, Percy's least successful fiction: Although consciousness, for Percy, depends on a knowing-with, on a dialogue of heart, mind, and soul, Tom [More, the protagonist of Love in the Ruins] has no central confidant in whose intimacy he can really become himself by talking out his identity."

Ultimately, Walker Percy: Books of Revelations does not so much break new ground in the discussion of Percy's fiction as it does consolidate the old. If the specifics of Ciuba's interpretation often recall the work of other critics, his emphasis on the centrality of Percy's apocalyptic vision is original and persuasive. Ciuba's thesis does not feel forced on to the material at hand, as happens in many critical studies; he does not have to skew various details of the original texts to fit his interpretation. Rather, Ciuba's emphasis on Percy's apocalyptics effectively traces the thematic and stylistic ligature that unifies his work, so that, by the end of Walker Percy: Books of Revelations, the reader feels as if he or she has actually glimpsed the figure in the carpet that is woven into the fabric of Percy's fiction.

That same sense of whole sight is neither possible nor desirable, though, in a collection of essays like Walker Percy: Novelist and Philosopher. The diversity of perspectives that we expect in a book of essays precludes the kind of carefully elaborated overview that we look for in a longer study. But if the twenty-one essays in Walker Percy: Novelist and Philosopher often strike out in different directions, the poles on their critical compass are, for the most part, remarkably similar. Once again, Percy's work is largely discussed in regard to existentialism, Southern stoicism, and Catholic theology and morality. Even the book's organization reinforces the traditional contexts in which Percy's work has been discussed. There are four sections - "The Novelist," "Novelist and Regionalist," "Novelist and Existentialist," and "Novelist and Moralist" - though the placement of essays within these sections sometimes seems arbitrary. The opening essay by Lewis Lawson, for instance, examines "the relationship that joins [Percy's] Catholicism and his theory of language," yet it is placed in the section entitled "The Novelist," despite the fact that the only work of Percy's it directly refers to is his first collection of essays, The Message in the Bottle. (In fact, this section of Walker Percy: Novelist and Philosopher is the most amorphous; it is as if the editors are not quite sure how to deal with the purely novelistic qualities of Percy's art - which is itself a failing of Percy criticism in general.)

Of course, one could justifiably argue that such topics as existentialism and Southern stoicism function as reference points in the discussion of Percy's fiction precisely because they reflect the concerns that were most important to Percy himself. And, indeed, there is ample evidence in Walker Percy: Novelist and Philosopher to support the efficacy of a critical approach which again looks at Percy's fiction in light of these concerns. Kathleen Scullin's essay on "Lancelot and Walker Percy's Dispute with Sartre over Ontology" is an excellent example of what might be called a traditional approach to Percy's fiction. Scullin shows how Lancelot himself embodies Sartre's view that "the self, alone and empty, can sustain itself only by seizing the freedom to create a self out of its own nothingness," even as the dialogic form of the novel that Lancelot is a part of embodies Percy's opposite belief that "the self is rooted in connectedness with others and sustained in celebrating that connectedness." In a similar fashion, Marion Montgomery's discussion of the contrast between Kierkegaard's fierce irony and Percy's more tolerant humor, Susan V. Donaldson's analysis of "the calcification and commodification of southern stories and tradition" in Lancelot, the Lawson essay mentioned above, and several other pieces all demonstrate that Percy's relationships to his region, his faith, and his philosophical influences remain vital subjects for critical inquiry.

In fact, it is not so much what is in Walker Percy: Novelist and Philosopher that leaves this reader vaguely dissatisfied as what is not there. Though the essays are almost uniformly thoughtful, well-researched, and cogent, there are few genuinely new subjects or approaches. It is as if the criticism of Percy's fiction - the most respected practitioners of which are represented here - has existed in isolation for the last twenty years, untouched by the theoretical and ideological storms that have swept across the academic world. The essays in this collection are largely, as Mark Johnson remarked of Percy criticism in another context, "innocent of theory." By the same token, though a significant number of women are represented as authors, only Elzbieta H. Olesky's "Walker Percy's Demonic Vision" directly addresses one of the most problematic aspects of Percy's fiction: his presentation of women characters. (And Olesky's focus is on the way that Lancelot, which both voices and parodies the most extreme misogyny, exemplifies what Northrop Frye describes as the biblical tradition of representing the demonic in feminine terms; she does not discuss the less deliberate instances of sexism in Percy's other novels.) Indeed, much of the work in this volume only seems to confirm what John Edward Hardy suggests in passing in his essay, that women are "other" in Percy's fiction.

This is not to say, however, that Walker Perty: Novelist and Philosopher is without merit. Far from it. Any serious student of Percy's fiction will find much to reward his or her attention, particularly if he or she wishes to understand The Thanatos Syndrome. No less than five essays respond to Percy's last novel, with particular attention devoted to "Father Smith's Confession," an episode that most of the critics have recognized as the thematic center of the novel and that - according to Patrick Samway's fascinating textual analysis of Percy's drafts - was inserted in a later stage of composition. There are also some essays in this volume that do examine previously unexplored aspects of Percy's work. "Elegies for Gentlemen: Walker Percy's The Last Gentleman and Eudora Welty's |The Demonstrators'," by Peggy Whitman Prenshaw, for instance, explores Percy's complex reaction to the civil rights movement, while at the same time contrasting his and Welty's views on the social function of their art; it is a model of concision and insight. And Bertram Wyatt-Brown's essay, "Percy Forerunners, Family History, and the Gothic Tradition," examines the parallels between Lancelot - a work that seems to inspire some of the most interesting critical responses - and The Household of Bouverie, a gothic novel by Percy's great-great-aunt Catherine Anne Warfield, one of the "scribbling dames" barred from the canon of American literature.

In the final analysis, both Walker Percy: Books of Revelations and Walk Percy: Novelist and Philosopher exemplify the strengths and weaknesses of Percy criticism. If both books seem sometimes to tread familiar ground, their sensitivity, scholarship, and obvious passion for their subject command our respect. Indeed, in some ways, the conservative stance of these books should be admired, for all of these writers implicitly insist that the author is neither trapped in a prison-house of unmoored signifiers nor programmed by cultural forces beyond his or her control or ken. They resist what David Lodge has called "an antihumanist scepticism about meaning, communication, and the value of the western cultural tradition," and in doing so they honor Percy's belief that literature is "cognitive," that it knows and tells and participates in a kind of dialogue with the reader. And while one might wish that the dialogue in these books ranged further afield than it does, one is grateful for the rewards of their scholarship and their seriousness of purpose. If neither offers bold new directions for criticism to pursue in the wake of Percy's death, both add to the foundation of our understanding of Walker Percy's haunting, insightful fiction.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Mississippi State University
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Kobre, Michael
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1992
Previous Article:Katherine Ann Porter: A Life.
Next Article:Beautiful Machine: Rivers and the Republican Plan, 1755-1825.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters